Exploring George Washington’s Mount Vernon
George Washington – an American icon. There are fewer things more patriotic than the first President of this great country, making visiting Mount Vernon a must for anyone who loves GW. Mount Vernon is a short drive or boat ride from Washington, DC and is a perfect day trip. My dad and I were lucky enough to visit the estate during a recent family trip and had the loveliest day exploring the grounds, home, and museum exhibits!
Mount Vernon was the plantation home of George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. The estate lies on the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia and overlooks Prince George’s County, Maryland. When George took over the grounds, they had already been in the Washington family for some time. The land was first purchased by Washington’s great-grandfather in 1674, with his father building the original home in 1735. The home was given to George’s half-brother, Lawrence, with George finally acquiring Mount Vernon in 1754.
Washington immediately started expanding and renovating the home into the 21-room residence that it is today. He modeled the home after agriculture, as he considered himself first and foremost a farmer. The residence hosted a number of famous guests during Washington’s time there, including several founding fathers and even the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington lived in this home until his death in 1799. Now, the mansion is undergoing some major restoration projects that would make Washington proud.
Buildings and Monuments
George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is massive! Between the mansion, outbuildings, gardens, exhibits, and grounds, Mount Vernon can more than fill a day. Dad and I spent around 5 hours exploring the property and felt like we still had more to see.
The Mansion is the centerpiece of the estate and receives countless guests each day! Each visitor is given a time slot when they enter Mount Vernon for when they can enter the mansion queue. The mansion tour isn’t like traditional home tours, as you really just walk through a long queue. Historians are in most rooms (at least one per floor!) to explain a bit about the history and uses of the rooms they’re stationed in. The entire tour can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how many visitors the property has that day. You can spend as much time as you’d like inside, but cannot take any pictures in the mansion. Once you’ve taken the tour, be sure to go sit on the porch facing the Potomac and really take everything in.
A number of buildings were required to store supplies, house employees, and produce goods. First is the Blacksmith Shop, where visitors to Mount Vernon can watch a blacksmith work at certain times of the day. Nearby is the Spinning House, which housed the equipment and fibers needed to make clothing and other goods for those residing at Mount Vernon. Shoes, a necessity, were made in the Shoemaker’s Shop on site. Refrigeration wasn’t a thing in Washington’s day, so meats would need to be salted and smoked in the Salt House and Smokehouse, respectively. More valuable supplies like blankets, clothes, tools, nails, leather, and more would be stored in the Storehouse. Washington liked to ride in style and, therefore, stored his carriages in a Carriage House and horses in the Stables. Finally, a Stove Room was needed to keep connected buildings outside the mansion warm in the winter months.
Many people who worked the property lived on site. The Clerk, George Washington’s right hand on staff, had his own Clerk House near the mansion. The estate Gardener also had their own Gardener’s House, as the job was one Washington prioritized. The Overseer, who managed everyone who worked at the estate (both free and enslaved), resided in the Overseers House. Finally, there are the slave quarters. Women and children were housed separately from the men, with the Shoemaker’s Shop and Stove Room separating the two bunk rooms. The Women’s Bunk Room was where women and children resided. Several spinning wheels were brought in for women to work on inside the bunk room, as spinning was an endless task. The Men’s Bunk Room was where men would stay when they weren’t working in the fields, as carpenters, or in various other roles at Mount Vernon.
Gardens and Grounds
One icon commonly associated with Washington is the cherry tree he supposedly chopped down. Whether or not that story is true, you can see cherry trees, and many other plants Washington grew, around the grounds and in the gardens of Mount Vernon. The gardens were not only aesthetically pleasing, but incredibly practical, as they were laid out in a way that optimized every inch of available space! Washington strived to make Mount Vernon as self-sufficient as possible, which required lots of different plants. Additionally, Washington heavily researched plants and even maintained his own botanical garden when he was home. Mount Vernon is also home to a number of animals who have been specially bred on the property and a fishery.
Have you ever wondered what George Washington’s dentures looked like? Well, you can find out in the Education Center (spoiler: they’re kind of gross). The Education Center houses the majority of the exhibits at the estate, including a massive 4D theater. All of the exhibits flow together wonderfully, which is great because it means you can’t get lost. The museum does a great job telling the story of Washington’s life, with facts that even the craziest Washington fans may not have known before visiting! Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures inside the museum exhibits; this does give you plenty of time to soak in all the wonderful information, though!
George Washington made it clear that he wanted to be buried at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, the family tomb was requiring some major repairs. A new, larger brick tomb was built shortly after Washington’s death and is where he and Martha’s remains were housed for some time. This is now known as the Old Tomb or Old Vault. The family remains were moved across the grounds in 1831 to a new tomb structure. George and Martha now lie in this building where guests can come and pay their respects.
Many slaves lived and died at Mount Vernon, with some, like William Lee, dying as freed-men. These individuals were buried in unmarked graves on the property. The number of individuals buried on the property is unknown. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, who preserve and maintain Mount Vernon, installed a marker for the burial grounds in 1929. Howard University architecture students designed a formal monument. The Slave Memorial was installed and dedicated in 1983. There are active archaeological excavations going on near the Slave Memorial.
One of the things that sets Mount Vernon apart from other archaeology sites I’ve written about is that there are active excavations occurring on the property! While visiting, you can see where these sites are, what phase of excavation they are in, and, if you’re lucky, see and even chat with the archaeologists carrying these excavations out!
Dad and I got to Mount Vernon shortly after they opened in the morning and large tarps covered the excavations by the main house and near the slave monument. In the afternoon, right as we went to leave, the excavation crew had come out and had resumed work! While we didn’t get the chance to chat with them, we did get to watch the excavations for a bit from a distance.
In addition to the main property, there is also a Distillery and Gristmill, open March 31 to October 31, a few miles down the road. You can either drive here or take the complimentary shuttle, which runs about every half hour. Dad and I were hoping to make it over to the Distillery and Gristmill, but barely missed the shuttle! We ended up heading back to the DC instead, promising each other we’d make it back again in the future to see them.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon is about 15 miles south of Washington, DC in Virginia. Mount Vernon features tons of fun activities, numerous scheduled events, and even some special tours. Visiting is an experience you’ll never forget; you might even plan a return visit!
There are a few different ways to get to Mount Vernon. Most obviously, you can take a car. There’s plenty of parking if you plan to drive yourself. We had flown into DC, so we took an Uber, which ran about $25 each way (during non-surge hours). You can take public transit via the Yellow Line and a bus (check a GPS for exact directions). Mount Vernon lies on several bus tour routes, some of which let you tour multiple area attractions in the same day. Cycling enthusiasts can bike an 18-mile bike trail that connects Mount Vernon and Washington, DC. Finally, you can take a boat up the Potomac. Several boats depart DC for Mount Vernon each day with set departure and return schedules. Prices for these boat trips vary.
At Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon is open year round. Admission to Mount Vernon is $20 per adult, but you can tickets for $18 if you buy online. At present, the estate offers two add-on tours for an additional $7 each. On the Through My Eyes Character Tour, guests are led on a 45 minute tour by a character actors portraying the people who knew Washington best. The other tour, the National Treasure Tour, guides guests through the areas used in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, from the scene where Nick Cage kidnaps the President. Other tours are offered during different times of the year, which can be found on Mount Vernon’s official website.
There are always tons of cool events going on at Mount Vernon. Make sure you check the calendar for special events before planning your visit! While at Mount Vernon, you can enjoy a number of fun activities included in admission. Guests can pay tribute to Washington and the slaves of the estate in special wreath laying ceremonies, sit down and chat with Martha Washington and other people of Mount Vernon, and even enjoy Revolution Era music played on traditional instruments. Visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon is truly an immersive experience.
Visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon was a truly immersive, informative, and unique experience. I plan on visiting again next time I’m in the DC area and can’t encourage you enough to do the same!
PS: If you’re wanting to read more historic or archaeological posts, check out the rest of my #SiteSunday series. Posts include Delphi, the OFC Distillery, Delos, and more!